Tag Archives: Christ

The Silence where God speaks: Commemorating Hiroshima and Nagasaki

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at the Seventieth Anniversary Commemoration of the Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in the presence of the Consul-General of Japan, at St Paul’s Cathedral on 9 August 2015, marking Hiroshima Peace Day:

450px-Cenotaph_HiroshimaThis morning’s readings (1 Kings 19.1-15, Ephesians 4.25-5.2, and John 6.35-51) challenge us to make sense of destruction and disaster as places where God himself is present, invite us to see the hope of resurrection even in the midst of great loss and devastation. They tell us that it is when we work for reconciliation and shun bitterness that we live the lives that God intended us to live when he made this world, and declared it to be ‘very good’.

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On this day seventy years ago, the city of Nagasaki was struck three days after the world’s first atomic bomb destroyed the city of Hiroshima. On impact, the bomb destroyed five square miles of the city of Hiroshima, and a square mile of the hillier city of Nagasaki. Home of the Mitsubishi works, which had been commandeered to produce armaments for the Japanese war effort, most of the Mitsubishi armament factory and almost all of its steel works were destroyed by the raging fire unleashed by the bomb, as winds of up to 1,000 km/h fanned fires of up to 3,900 degrees.

It is a miracle that 12% of the city’s dwellings escaped destruction. The two explosions claimed more than 129,000 lives on the day they were launched, and probably another 120,000 or so lives in the following months, as people died from the effects of the severe burns or radiation sickness. At the time, the aim of the two atomic devices was to cause ‘prompt and utter destruction’. Although the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 caused greater destruction and loss of life than the two nuclear bombings, it was the immediate and utter destruction caused by the bombs, and their use in a sequence of terror, three days apart, as a ‘rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth’, as President Harry Truman put it, that brought to a rapid end the Pacific War (Truman Papers 1945-53, 97: ‘Radio Report to the American People on the Potsdam Conference, 9 August 1945’).

While Truman acknowledged the ‘tragic significance of the atomic bomb’, the device was intended to be used ‘until we completely destroy Japan’s power to make war’, the President declared after the destruction of Nagasaki. ‘Only a Japanese surrender will stop us’, Truman concluded. On the day after the destruction of Nagasaki, the first steps to surrender were set in motion. A week after its destruction, the war was over. For the past seventy years, the world has tried to make sense of the ‘tragic significance of the atomic bomb’ and to control its use. The boundaries between perpetrators and victims of destruction became terribly blurred in devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, no atomic device has been used in the countless acts of warfare since these ‘twin shocks’ (Truman Papers, 97).

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Our first lesson, from the first book of the Kings, is written from the perspective of a survivor of great devastation. The prophet Elijah himself was at once a perpetrator and a victim of great destruction. Living some 2,800 years before the events we mark today, Elijah also had once brought down fire from the skies upon his opponents, killing the priests of the Canaanite fertility god Baal by fire and sword (1 Kings 18.33f). Now he is facing the consequences of his greatest triumph: hunted, persecuted, laid low, Elijah fled from his homeland into the wilderness, walking through the desert to the place where God had first called to himself a people. On this reverse exodus, tracing the journey of the people of Israel back into the desert lands, Elijah, too is sustained by heavenly food: the bread made by angels sustained him, fortified him at the time at which was ready for his own life to be taken away, to starve himself intentionally to death.

At the mountain, Elijah is commanded to make ready to encounter God: he leaves the cave in which he had hidden himself, and awaits God. And the destroyer of God’s enemies by fire and sword clearly expects God to reveal himself in destruction: a terrifying wind that split mountains and rocks, a devastating earthquake and a great fire ‘passed before the Lord’. But God was not in the signs of destruction. God was neither in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire. ‘After the fire there was a sound of sheer silence’, and it was in the silence after the fury, in the empty space after the destruction, that God was. God meets the perpetrator turned victim in the silence of destruction of fire, wind and shattered rocks, and hears and answers him. And God gives his prophet a new vision, and a new direction; he sends Elijah away to consecrate new rulers for a new era: Hazael as king of Syria, Jehu as king of Israel, and Elisha as his own disciple.

God is in the silence following the destruction. God is not the means of destruction. Which is why for many of us, President Truman’s thanksgiving prayer for the fact the atomic bomb ‘has come to us; … and we pray that God may guide us to use it in his ways and for his purposes’ may strike a jarring note (Truman Papers, 97). Yes, God is there where the high winds of destruction battle the landscape so that rocks crumble. Yes, God is there where the devastating fire scorches all it consumes. Yes, God is there where the earth quakes and destroys. But God is neither the earthquake, nor the whirlwind, nor the fire: neither at Mount Horeb, nor at Nagasaki. Yes, God is there where the world is shaken and destroyed, but God is not the source of destruction – even if called down by those who, like Elijah and President Truman, firmly believed themselves to be on God’s side.

Instead, God is there in silence, ready to give new direction, to inspire to choose new and better rulers, to sustain and uplift. God is there in the silent space that enables his people to take stock of the devastation, and to begin to breathe again where fire and wind fanned flames that killed and destroyed. That sheer silence that is a sign that God himself is present.

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That silence is not an empty space. It is a space for life, a life-giving space. In our Gospel reading we see that silence filled with words, filled by the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ (John 6.35-51). Jesus speaks words of hope and trust into the silence left by destruction and devastation, suffering and sadness. Jesus speaks words of life into this world of so many deaths. ‘This is the will of the Father who sent me’, Jesus says, ‘that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day’. And just so that we can take comfort and hope that this promise is not an empty space, but a life-filled, life-giving space, Jesus makes his promise again: ‘This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who believe in the Son and believe in him, may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day’ (John 6.39-40).

The fruits of this life-filling space that is promised for all who have ears to hear, to listen out for it in the midst of even the greatest catastrophe; the fruits of this life-giving space are forever just as they are for now. Yes, Christ will raise up those who trust in him on the last day. Those are the eternal fruits of that life-giving space of God’s presence. But there are fruits to be reaped in every generation. Fruits that stand at the heart of our reading from the epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 4.25-5.2): fruits that flourish where we ‘put away from us all bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander, together with all malice’ (Ephesians 4.31). Fruits that flourish where we are ‘kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us’ (Ephesians 4.32). Fruits that will bear real fruit now: and fruit that will last (John 15.16). We bear this lasting fruit where we become ‘imitators of God’, see ourselves no longer as different, but as family adopted by God, ‘beloved children who live in love’ (Ephesians 5.1).

We bear this precious fruit where we live in the way ‘Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Ephesians 5.1). Christ calls us to bear that costly fruit, and promises us that when we bear the fruit that lasts, God the Father will give us ‘whatever we ask in Christ’s name’ (John 15.16).

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‘Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life’, Jesus tells his hearers (John 6.47). As we stand in silence and contemplate the horror and terror of war, both conflicts past, such as the cataclysmic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and conflicts present, it is my prayer that, in our silence, we may find the life-giving space, life-shaping space where God reveals himself.

It is my prayer that by our living as imitators of God we may attune our ears to listen out for that God-given space, that God-given word, even in the midst of the din of destruction, and the clamour of conflict. And it is my prayer that having heard God’s word to us, we may recognise the God among us in our neighbours, committing ourselves to the work of reconciliation and peace, ‘for we all are members of one another’ (Ephesians 4.25).

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3.20-21).

Letting go to walk with God in the greater peace: celebrating Frank Callaway

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on 11 August 2015, at a Memorial Service commemorating the Hon. Frank Callaway QC RFD:

Cross of GloryAs Frank Callaway retired from the Supreme Court of our State, he thanked his colleagues in his accustomed gracious manner, and told them that in retirement he would return to his first loves: ‘history and philosophy and those aspects of human experience that, even now, are best expressed in religious language’ ([2007] VSC, Transcript of Speeches, p. 19). As we give thanks for Frank’s life, we also do well to turn to his first loves to make sense of the hope of the life that is forever: history and the kind of philosophy that is best expressed in terms of the language of our faith.

For Frank shared the faith in a life that is forever, even should our life here on earth be cut short. Just as he scrutinised the history that stands at the heart of that faith: the history of the carpenter from Nazareth, who was revealed to be the Lord of life one Passover eve in Jerusalem, as his life, too, was taken; at the time that the sun hid his face and the moon obscured her gaze, in darkness and alone. The mystery of the empty tomb, with its neatly rolled up grave-clothes, and a somewhat officious young man that turns the grieving away, redirecting them to the place where their journey with Jesus had begun: ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him, just as he told you’ (Mark 16.7).

Frank’s life was profoundly shaped by this story, and this faith. It was this story that led him to excel, to strive to serve a cause greater than self: to seek to bring justice to others. It was the desire to serve the cause of justice that led him, at an early stage in his career to choose to devote his energies to cases in the appellate court. Seen by some to be a risky move, his specialisation, ultimately, led to his appointment to the Appellate Bench, and an opportunity significantly to shape Victorian jurisprudence ([2007] VSC, Transcript of Speeches, p. 3).

At the heart of the desire to serve an earthly justice was, without a doubt, Frank’s conviction that in so doing he would take a share in doing ‘what the Lord does require of you: to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’, as the prophet Micah reminded the people of Israel in our first lesson (Micah 6.6-8). In that sense earthly justice was an expression of divine justice – a justice that did not seek material recompense in the first instance ‘thousands of rams …, ten thousand rivers of oil’, even giving our ‘firstborn for my transgression’, but rather a justice that sought a change of heart, sought metanoia, repentance, and the transformation of life and circumstance (Micah 6.7, cf. Mark 1.15).

This is how Frank himself would put it in his retirement magnum opus of philosophy and faith, Reflections (‘Dougall A. S. Smith’, Reflections [North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2013]): ‘the intution of God led to compassion, not retributive justice’. And that compassion was shown forth most fully in the life of the builder from Nazareth who was himself both the one formed our universe, and was himself God in human form; the divine logos at the beginning of all creation, and the divine Son, Jesus Christ the Lord: the author of this world, of all life and, as our second lesson knows, the author of our salvation (Romans 8.31-35).

Through the incarnation of Christ, the ‘intution of God’ turned a retributive justice into compassion, opening a way beyond the material principle of repaying evil to the principle of justice itself, whereby neither ‘hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword’, neither ‘death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’, as St Paul reminded the Roman church (Romans 8.35, 38-39).

In the last few years, Frank pondered these questions deeply. In doing so, like many of the first hellenistic Christian writers, he drew on the work of the Greco-Roman philosophers to make sense of the ‘inexpressible and glorious joy’ of knowing and believing in the invisible, risen Son of God. The apostle Peter put this act of believing like this in his first epistle general: ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy’ (1 Peter 1.8-9). That joy, Peter knew, was motivated by the telos, the end result, of our faith: ‘the salvation of our souls’ (1 Peter 1.9).

Frank grappled with the concept of the truth, the validity, of St Peter’s claim in his Reflections: ‘if Christianity is true, the image and likeness of God would become the goal or telos of humanity and that image and likeness would be revealed in Christ’ (Reflections, p. 48). If Christianity is true, then the goal of our human journey is the inxepressible joy of knowing that divine justice. The justice that by right could demand full repayment for our tresspasses, but instead is reflected by the selfgiving compassion of the author of our salvation.

And it is that knowledge, that can enable us to bear the burdens of seeing others suffer; whether through illness and pain, or through injustice and ill-treatment. And it is that strength which can enable us to do, in this life, what ‘the Lord requires of us: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6.8).

In his Reflections, Frank hedged his bets on what the reward for a life lived according to the maxim of Micah and the apostles Peter and Paul might be like. For him it seems to have been not so much inexpressible joy, as simply inexpressible. This is what he wrote: ‘In the final analysis, life after death can be intuited or believed in, but it cannot be understood or imagined: … to do so, is literally impossible’. Frank concluded: ‘I often think that one should therefore live this life as well as possible and leave the afterlife to take care of itself’ (Reflections, p. 32).

Frank himself chose to let go of the constraints of this life and embrace the inxepressible, indefinable life of eternity. As part of his reflections on life, justice and the life after death, he also spent time reflecting on what it means to let go: ‘It is of the essence of the spiritual life … that one must first “let go”: … [this is first of all] a matter of stopping and, as it were, doing nothing. Later it extends to letting go of ideas, as well as mental habits that cause unnecessary suffering. For some people there is a release from anxiety and a sense of inner peace.’ (Reflections, p. 1). ‘Put very simply’, he would conclude his work, ‘to let go of the ego, the source of separation, anxiety and much else that is destructive, [is] to walk with God’ (p. 74).

At the end of his own life, Frank did let go, and entered the simply inexpressible life to walk with God. Now, having himself ‘let go’, Frank shares the closer walk with God, and the greater peace – that peace which passes all understanding. And we, who are still facing the complexities of this life, who still live by faith and not by sight, are now invited to ‘let the afterlife take care’ of Frank.

For us who are left behind, remains the task to celebrate his having succeeded in his intent to live his life as well as possible: touching the hearts of many, hearing the pleas and appeals for justice of many, meeting them with fairness and compassion and, wherever appropriate and possible, a justice tempered with mercy. We now may ‘let the afterlife take care’ of Frank. We now may let Frank go into the greater peace to walk there with God, because we share his hope and trust in the compassion of God that shone forth in the person of Jesus Christ. We now may let Frank rest in God’s peace because Christians believe that the author of the life of the universe at the beginning of all things is also the author of resurrection, ‘the conqueror of death’ (Romans 8.37).

And so, in this hope, let us commend Frank to the mercy and protection of the God who calls the departed to walk with him, live with him, in his peace; the One who invites us to become ‘more than conquerors with him through his love’ (Romans 8.37). The One who convicts us by his mercy, and bids us believe ‘that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8.37-39). Amen.

The Servants of all: obeying Christ’s call to discipleship

A sermon preached at the 101st Patronal Festival of the Parish of St James the Great, East St Kilda, by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of St James, 2015:

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I bring you warm greetings from the congregations of St Paul’s Cathedral: your home church at the heart of our city. It is a joy to be with you on your patronal festival, as you celebrate 101 years of the foundation of the parish of St James East St Kilda, and to reflect with you on the ministry of your patron, St James. My predecessor, Dean Hussey Burgh Macartney, was, of course, both Dean of St James’ Cathedral and of St Paul’s Cathedral; so the example of St James stands at the very beginning of our story as a Cathedral. It is therefore a delight to be explore together what the example of St James the Great may mean for us today as we seek to be followers of Jesus Christ in this generation.

St James was one of the great apostles. Among the first four to be called, together with his brother John, and Simon Peter and Andrew, for the writers of our Gospels, he is one of the examples of what it means to follow Jesus to the cross and, following his glorious resurrection from the dead, what it means to lead God’s people. Before he met Jesus, and responded to his call to leave his former life behind and follow him, James was firmly established in his family’s fishing business on Lake Galilee. A partner together with his brother John and their father Zebedee, they were moored near the shore of Lake Galilee, preparing their nets to fish, when Jesus called them to leave their nets behind and instead to go, follow him, and become ‘fishers of men’. Peter and Andrew, James and John, responded immediately to Jesus’ call. So insistent was Jesus’ call that James and his brother ‘left their father in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him’ (Mark 1.20, Matthew 4.21).

Andrew and Simon, James and John were not only the first four disciples to enter into discipleship, but from the moment of their call they became Jesus’ key witnesses. They were among the ‘chosen witnesses’ who saw Jesus transfigured on a high mountain, they walked alongside Jesus at his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and were taken aside by Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, to be near him in his agony (Mark 9.2-8, 13.3, 14.33). They sought to be like Jesus, and promised to follow him even into the darkest moments. And as they promised to follow, they clearly expected great rewards, today’s Gospel story suggests. A chapter earlier, Peter had already questioned Jesus whether there would be a reward for their discipleship: ‘We have left everything and followed you; what then will there be for us’ (Matthew 19.27). And Jesus assured them that ‘at the renewal of all things’ they would be seated on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’, adding, ‘but many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first’ (19.29). Having been promised great reward by the one who called them to follow, today James and John openly ask for an even greater reward: to share the seats of honour when Jesus came to reign.

Simon and Andrew, John and James serve as much an example of godly leadership and faithfulness, as they are an example of human fallibility. Perhaps it was because they had been witnesses of glory – had been among the chosen four to see Jesus transfigured in resurrection light – that they were unable to grasp the fact that Jesus’ kingdom might not be ushered in by glory but through suffering. In spite of the fact that Jesus openly speaks about the suffering he will undergo at the hand of those who oppose him; that his ascent to Jerusalem would be an ascent to the cross, the disciples still hope to shield Jesus from suffering, hope to enter the kingdom in glory, not through agony and pain. They still hope for a reward of glory, and have not yet understood that the reward they will gain is sharing in Jesus’ suffering.

How could they understand? They had seen Jesus’ deeds of power; had seen him heal the sick, command the elements, raise the dead to life again; had seen him transfigured in glory and confessed him as God’s Son. How would the all-powerful God let his Son not enter into glory, save him from his enemies. And the glimpses of the divine glory they had perceived in Christ to them were signs of the reward they would enjoy. So convinced are they still that Jesus will accomplish his triumph in Jerusalem, that they were arguing among themselves who among them would be the most worthy; who would be allowed to take the place occupied by Elijah and Moses on the Mountain of the Transfiguration. Who was greatest among them; who would be seated at the right and the left of their transfigured king on the thrones he had promised them all.

And at each stage of their conversation about greatness and glory, Jesus had stalled the discussion, either by reminding them that his intent was to go to Jerusalem to suffer and to die, or by telling them that the hierarchies of his kingdom were not those they had hoped for: ‘the first will be last, and the last first’. Obtaining the prime thrones promised them, then, would require diplomacy and skill. Which is why it is the mother of James and John put in the request for her sons’ glory. Commenting on Matthew’s gospel in the Fourth Century, St John Chrysostom suggests that James and John were too ashamed to ask for themselves. Their mother kneels before Jesus in humble submission, like the Canaanite woman when she begged Jesus to save her daughter’s life (Matthew 15.25), or the woman who knelt before Jesus and anointed his feet with her tears. The posture may be the same, but otherwise the two pleas couldn’t be more different: James and John were not asking for transformed, healed, lives; but for glory and power.

Jesus’ response to the two is charactistic: rather than grant them their request, promise them glory; he promises them suffering. ‘Can you drink the cup that I am to drink’, he asks them; can you drink the bitter of cup of suffering and death that I will pray the Father to let pass from me in my inner agony in Gethsemane? And the two still do not understand, assent to gain glory, and are told that they will indeed drink deep of the draught of suffering, and die for their discipleship; are told that discipleship will mean carrying the cross before entering into glory. ‘The Son of Man’, says Jesus concludes, ‘has not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20.28). Where in the Hebrew Scriptures God had promised to give rich nations, the local superpowers in ransom for his people, here Jesus tells the disciples that he will give his own Son in ransom so that his creation may, once again, be called ‘very good’.

‘The Son of Man has come to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20.28). Jesus has not come to rule the nations in glory; his ‘kingdom is not of this world’. Jesus is not one who ‘seeks great things’: the reverse is the case for God’s servant. For in reflecting on his own servanthood, Jesus recalls the role of the Servant of the Lord from the prophecy of Isaiah; God’s chosen who ‘makes himself an offering for sin’ (Isa 53.10). The humble servant who will take on ‘our infirmities and bear our diseases’ (Mt 8.17); the innocent victim who made no answer to his accusers (27.12); God’s lamb whose blood is ‘poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins’ (26.27-28). God’s Son who gives his life as a ransom for God’s people, who gives himself to die, so that all may have life forever.

I sometimes wonder how much James and John understand of Jesus’s calling to be a victim, a ransom for many. I wonder whether they understood his invitation to follow him in terms of that calling. Their behaviour in the Gospel stories suggests little such understanding. James and John wanted to bring down fire, St Luke tells us, upon the Samaritan village that rejected Jesus (Luke 9.51-56). James and John, were called the ‘Sons of Thunder’ for a reason: the name suggests impulsive characters, people who are ready to repay agression or rejection with like coin. People who understood well what it meant to claim an ‘eye for an eye’ but who had yet to learn what it may mean to ‘love one’s enemies and pray for those who persecute us’. ‘Can you drink the cup that I am about to drink?’, Jesus asked the Sons of Thunder (Mt 20.22). Yes we can, they replied readily, but naïvely.

Of the two only John lived to reach old age in Ephesus. James drained his master’s cup far sooner. In about 44 AD, Herod killed James ‘with the sword’ (Acts 12.2). James received the Roman sentence of a political troublemaker. Ten years after Jesus’s death, the brother we commemorate today was still a Son of Thunder. But at the same time, he will also have known that to be at Jesus’s side on his throne in glory meant to suffer, on his left or his right, like the thieves at Calvary (Mt 27.38). He will have known, like the righteous thief, that the way into paradise was by asking for God’s mercy rather than to enter into God’s glory without first taking up our cross: the mercy that led God to give his only Son as a ransom for many; the glory that shines forth from the cross, where Christ is enthroned as King of all nations.

Today we give thanks for James’ witness to the service that is revealed in suffering. The martyrdom he suffered shines as an example of what it means to exercise true leadership: not the leadership that seeks ‘to lord it over others’ (Mt 20.25), the leadership that is based on good connections and the intercession of intermediaries. On the contrary, the reason we give thanks for the leadership of St James the Great is because he came to realise that the way of ruling among the people he lived was not the way of God’s kingdom. There, to be first among people meant to be the slave of all (20.27). There, to serve God in his people was the only way to experience perfect freedom. As we give thanks for the example of St James, we pray that we, too may be equipped with grace to follow Christ on the way to the kingdom, that we may be given grace to follow in his spirit humbleness and gentleness, by seeking to be servants of others, by seeing the image of Christ in the least of his brothers and sisters, and so to share in building up his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Let us pray:

O gracious God, we remember before you today your servant and apostle James, first among the Twelve to suffer martyrdom for the Name of Jesus Christ; and we pray that you will pour out upon the leaders of your Church the same spirit of self-denying service by which alone they may have true authority among your people; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

‘Their Pattern and their King’: Together Singing God’s Praises

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at the 2015 Keble Mass, at St Martin’s Hawksburn, on 20 July 2015:

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John Keble, whose memory we honour at this annual Eucharist, is probably one of the most prolific hymnodists of the nineteenth century. In his The Christian Year: thoughts in verse for the Sundays and holydays throughout the year, the Oxford Tractarian succeeded in providing a hymn for each day of the Church’s calendar, many of which have become firm favourites among Anglican congregations. Most of you will have a favourite Keble hymn, though you may not necessarily think of it as a ‘Keble’ hymn. Your favourite might be an eventide or morning hymn, like Keble’s translation of the traditional Greek evening hymn, Hail, gladdening light, or his joyful, New ev’ry morning is the love, his Lord in thy name, thy servants plead, his majestic hymn in celebration of the fourth evangelist, Word supreme before creation, or his contemplative Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear.

Many of Keble’s hymns are characterised by their vivid imagery and fine poetry, as befits a theologian who also held the position of Professor of Poetry—then as now very much a working poet’s post—at the University of Oxford. In hymns such as Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear, each verse is a poem in itself:

Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear,
It is not night if thou be near;
O may no earth-born cloud arise
To hide thee from thy servant’s eyes.

The presence of Christ in the human soul is likened to the sunrise of Easter morn: the risen Son becomes the sunrise of the human soul that can illumine even the darkest night. Here, in a single stanza, the great mystery of salvation is translated from the events of Easter that changed the course of human relationships with God forever, and is brought closer to the experience of those who would hymn the One who shines in our hearts: bright Easter light chases away the remaining shadows, ‘it is not night if thou be near’. Death is overcome by life, and makes our own deaths journeys home to God:

till in the ocean of thy love
we lose ourselves in heaven above.

                                                                   Sun of my soul

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Keble’s hyms are both pastoral, and theological. They seek to strengthen us, the singers, in our own understanding of the faith, and in our devotion to God—the subject of all of Keble’s hymns. In his Pentecost hymn, When God of old came down from heaven, he creates bridges in poetry between the eternal, and the universal and the personal and individual. God who is ‘of old’ sends his Spirit to ‘fill the Church of God’, and seeks to fill each human heart with his goodness and love: ‘to turn to God and be saved, all the end of the earth’, as our first lesson puts it (Isaiah 45.22). Keble ends his Pentecost hymn with this passionate appeal:

Come Lord, come Wisdom, Love and Power,
open our ears to hear;
let us not miss the accepted hour;
save, Lord, by love or fear.

                                    When God of old came down from heaven

Or, in his hymn for St John’s-tide, when he sets forth in words of poetry the mystery of the Word-made-flesh at the heart of our Gospel reading (John 1.1-14):

Word supreme, before creation
born of God eternally,
who didst will for our salvation
to be born on earth, and die. …

                                        Word supreme, before creation

The eternal God takes flesh, Keble tells in his hymn, so that at the end of all time, we humans might partake in God’s presence forever; be assured of God’s judgement of love. With God, the God-with-us in Christ, there is no more need for Christ’s followers to fear the day of reckoning, Keble writes. Indeed, God’s wrath has been turned to love, for those who trust his promise, Keble has us sing:

Lo! heaven’s doors lift up, revealing
how thy judgments earthward move;
scrolls unfolded, trumpets pealing,
wine-cups from the wrath above,
yet o’er all a soft voice stealing
‘Little children, trust and love!’

                                Word supreme, before creation

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Portrait_of_John_Keble_(cropped)

Keble’s hymns have profoundly influenced Anglican worship. True, some of his many hymns have fallen out of use, mainly because of their length: the four-verse hymn that lent its title to this sermon, Blest are the pure in heart, for instance, started off as a seventeen-verse hymn for St Matthew’s Day—we just don’t sing hymns that long any more. Other of Keble’s hymns have been significantly re-edited for modern use: many of the translations of hymns from the ancient church, such as his ‘Faithful Cross! Above all other’, and his ‘Sing my tongue’, for example, form the textual basis for later hymns of the same titles compiled by J.M. Neale and the editors of the English Hymnal and, as such, have shaped much of our Holy Week observance, or our ritual understanding of the Eucharist.

The enduring popularity of Keble’s hymns derives from his skill to bridge the world of theological thought—of often intricate abstract concepts such as the Incarnation or the real presence in the Eucharist—with the world of human experience. In order to achieve this, Keble draws on his own theological depth, and his profound understanding as someone redeemed, loved, and claimed by Christ. The overarching purpose of Keble’s hymnody is this: that Christ is ‘our pattern and our King’, and that, through Word and Sacrament

still to the lowly soul
he doth himself impart
And for his cradle and his throne
chooseth the pure in heart.

All of these strands—the evangelistic, the theological, the personal and devotional—Keble skilfully renders into poetry and, some might say, ‘Anglicanism’: Keble’s rendering of ageless theological truth in a very Anglican garb gave shape to modern Catholic Anglican theology. His output and his insight made him a natural choice for the editors of the English Hymnal; indeed, while Keble is outshone by his earlier contemporary Charles Wesley, and his fellow Tractarian J.M. Neale, in the New English Hymnal, he still does maintain a very strong popular presence in our hymnals.

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In tonight’s epistle reading (Romans 10.10-15) St Paul asks the questions that motivated Keble and his fellow Tractarians, and the many evangelists, apostles, priests and faithful, before him in their mission. How may those who are still far off in the life of faith ‘call on one in whom they have not believed?’ How are those outside, or at the margins of the church, ‘to believe in one of whom they have never heard?’ Indeed, ‘how are they to hear without someone to proclaim Christ?’ (Romans 10.14). Keble, who sought to bring the truth of the gospel close to us by the words of his hymns and tracts, is to be counted among the bearers of Good News. ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News’—Paul concludes today’s epistle, citing Isaiah (Romans 10.15, Isaiah 52.7). How beautiful are those who bring Good News: and you will agree that Keble’s hymns cause us to sing of the Good News of our salvation most beautifully.

How can we come to know Christ, and how can we come to a closer relationship with him, Paul asks in our epistle, and provides himself the answer: ‘If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your hearts that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’ (Romans 10.10). Earlier in our Chapter, Paul spoke of how his heart’s desire is for all to be saved, to be called to come close to Christ. And in the light of this fervent desire, he considers the role of those who proclaim Good News, who bring the Word of God close to us, so that all can proclaim: ‘the Word is near you, on your lips and in your hearts’ (Romans 10.8).

Keble shares this desire to expound the gospel, in his own day, and still does so today through his hymns (though he also wrote countless poems—sonnets, hymns and ballads—some on key aspects of the faith, such as the role of Scripture, others on heroes of Anglicanism such as Ridley, Cranmer and Hooker, others on the danger of dissenters and the necessity for church unity, the ‘love of mammon’ he perceived in the United States, the dwindling of congregations, or the desire to keep the service short: ‘but faith is cold, and wilful men are strong,/ And the blithe world, with bells and harness proud,/ Rides tinkling by, so musical and loud,/ It drowns the Eternal Word, the Angelic Song;/ And one by one the weary, listless throng,/ Steals out of church, and leaves the choir unseen/ of winged guards to weep, where prayer had been,/ That souls immortal find that hour too long’, Length of the Prayers).

It was St Augustine who famously asserted that ‘those who sing, pray twice’. Keble’s skill with pen and words enabled him to add instruction in the Christian faith to St Augustine’s sung prayers. ‘How can they believe in one of whom they have never heard?’, Paul asked (Romans 10.14). Throughout his life Keble sought to bring the faith he had inherited to the people around him. His motivation to do so was to bring the faith of the universal church to the English-speaking people where they were, in words and music they understood. Throughout his life Keble yearned for the hearts of his fellows, and his own heart, to become ‘a place where angels sing!/ … And enter in and dwell,/ And teach that heart to swell/ With heavenly melody, their own untired employ’ (In Choirs and Places where they Sing, here followeth the Anthem).

Like our gospel writer, Keble is a poet of the Word made Flesh. And like our gospel writer Keble puts the coming of the Word of God in human flesh at the centre of his hymnody. But equally important to him is a second central strand of John’s gospel: that God’s Word can come so close to us that it can truly be said to dwell in us, that it can sustain us, in body and soul. And for Keble, as for John, this personal in-dwelling is found in the bread of the Eucharist. Keble expounds the true presence of Christ among us in the Eucharist, when he invites us to sing with him:

Oh, come to our Communion Feast:
There present, in the heart
As in the hands, th’ eternal Priest
Will His true self impart.

       Gunpowder Treason

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‘The word of God is near you’, Paul knew, if it is brought to us by evangelists who make known the Good News. The word is so near that it is on our lips and in our hearts, Paul explained. The Word of God dwelt among us not only as the historic person in the incarnate Christ, who walked this earth; but that Word dwells with us in us today, comes close to each one of us, as we come to receive him on our lips in the sacrament we are gathered to receive, and in order to render our hearts to him.

By right, the final words ought to belong to the poet and priest we celebrate today:

Thou didst come thy fire to kindle;
Fain would we thy torches prove,
Far and wide thy beacons lighting
With the undying spark of love.
Only feed our flame, we pray thee,
with thy breathings from above.

    Hymn for Easter-tide

It is my prayer for you and me, that we may come to know Christ in our hearts, by receiving him in the gifts of bread and wine he bestowed on his Church. It is my prayer that, filled with his presence we, too, might come to share in the work of making him known with all the skills and gifts God has given us, translating again the faith of old to a new generation longing, like Paul’s and Keble’s contemporaries, for someone – for you and for me – to proclaim to them Good News.

Saving Souls: at Sea and for Heaven

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on Sea Sunday, 12 July 2015, at Christ Church Cathedral Oxford:

Red Bay RNLI getting ready to receive replacement Atlantic 85 lifeboat

I bring you greetings from St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, the seat of the Primate of Australia and the metropolitical Cathedral of the Province of Victoria. Thank you, Dean Martyn Percy and Sub-Dean Edmund Newey for your kind invitation to preach this morning: It is a joy to be back at Christ Church, the place of my ordination 14 years ago, and before then the place in which I sang regularly during the summer months as part of your voluntary choir – the Cathedral singers.

This morning’s reading speak of the awe-inspiring nature of the sea, and assure us that the God who, at the beginning of time, made the sea and the dry land is master of the oceans, seas and rivers of our world. They tell us that, at the end of all time, God will gather in his people from all directions of the compass, ‘gather them out of the lands, from the east, the west, the north and the south’ (Psalm 107.3). They remind us that, even though God brings in entire nations and people, he knows each one of us individually and personally, ‘calls us by name’, and makes us his own (Isaiah 43.1). And, in the light of that knowledge, they invite us to place our own trust in the One who commands ‘even the wind and sea’, our Lord Jesus Christ, and to find our haven in the vision of the kingdom of heaven to which he calls those who know him (Mark 4.41).

I encountered the majesty and treachery of the ocean during my formative years on the Atlantic coast of the British Isles. For some two years I served as a helmsman of an Atlantic-class Inshore Life-Boat patrolling a thirty-mile stretch of the coast of South Wales. It was at once exhilarating and awe-inspiring to cut through the gale-swept waves at a speed of more than 25 knots, as our crew responded to the maritime emergency call ‘Save Our Souls’. Those in peril on the seas ranged from small sailing vessels to large commercial craft, included children caught in the tidal change on their rubber dinghies and beachgoers caught out at the bottom of steep cliffs by the high tide. It was a privilege to be able to contribute to ensure the physical safety of those threatened by the elements, and it gave me a first hand insight into the challenges and dangers faced by those serving on the seas on a daily basis.

During my time as part of the Royal National Life-Boat Institution, I learnt as much about saving souls as I have learnt since in my ministry as a parish priest and Dean; and learnt about giving thanks for missions accomplished successfully: bedraggled children returned to their anxious parents, shivering day-trippers restored to safety. At the same time I had my first encounters with violent deaths, as the sea claimed and did not return those we set out to rescue: learnt about the pain and the cost of souls lost at sea. It was at times like these, I now know with the benefit of hindsight, that I began begun to grapple with the challenge posed by the Christian assurance of resurrection: how could it be that there was a life for those who had died? When faced with those we brought back drowned, when faced with an unsuccessful rescue, I began to ponder the hope for souls lost at sea, and all other departed.

The question of the resurrection of the dead and the hope for all souls—not only those lost at sea—is addressed by our first lesson, from the Prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 43.1-7). The prophet assures those who fear their own future and, as part of that future, their own future mortality, that God has ‘redeemed them’ (43.2). God has responded to his people’s call, far away from safety, in a foreign land of exile and oppression, and he promises them a future: ‘I have formed you; I have redeemed you’, God tells through the prophet (43.1). God cares so much for the people who call on him in their distress, that he knows each individual plight, each individual challenge, we read: ‘I have called you by name, you are mine’ (43.1).

And God promises them safe passage to the safe haven he promises them: the place of safety and protection, where God will be with his people, where ‘everyone who is called by God’s name, whom God created for his glory, whom he formed and made’ will dwell forevermore: the eternal haven of heaven (43.7). God not only promises a place of safety and refuge at the end of our journeys through life: he also promises safe passage to that haven, the prophet Isaiah foretells. Neither the natural environment nor people and nations hostile to God’s people shall, ultimately, be a threat to those whom God calls his own: ‘when you pass through the waters I shall be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you’, we heard (Isaiah 43.2).

Life’s journey may lead through turbulent waters, Isaiah prophecies, but God will walk with his people: ‘do not fear, I am with you’, God speaks to his own (43.1). Even should God’s people face life in subjection to a harsh taskmaster and overlord—as during their exile in Babylon, the context into which Isaiah’s words were spoken—God has ultimately won the liberty of his people, has ransomed them and set them free: ‘I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life’ (43.3). The physical freedom and life of his people has been won by the ransom of ancient superpowers, our reading knows: ‘I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you’ (43.3). The everlasting freedom and life of his people has been won by another ransom: the life of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, ‘as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10.45).

Giving entire nations as a ransom so that one people—gathered from all nations—may live in freedom is a steep price to pay. Giving the life of God himself as a ransom so that all people may live forever is an even more precious price to pay. Our second reading, from the Holy Gospel according to St Mark, introduces us to the One who would be given as God’s ransom to ensure that death will no longer imperil God’s people (Mark 4.35-41). We meet the disciples and Jesus towards the very beginning of his ministry. Jesus’ followers do not yet know his true identity as Son of God: at this stage in the story they only know him as a healer and an inspiring teacher. As they cross the Sea of Galilee, a ‘great gale arose’ (4.37).

The disciples knew the Sea of Galilee like the back of their hands: most of them had run their own fishing business, and had navigated its waters on an almost daily basis. Between them, they had had many years of sailing experience, had steered safely through many a sudden gale on the Sea that provided their livelihood. Yet this storm is beyond even their extensive experience: they struggle for control of their sailing vessel: the waves break into their ship, and swamp the hull. Their teacher remains oblivious to his disciples’ danger, ‘asleep in the stern’ as the gale roars and the waves threaten to sink the ship (4.38).

At this point, the disciples acknowledge their failure to control the vessel and send out one of the first recorded ‘SOS’ calls in naval history: Save our souls—‘we are perishing’, they cry out waking their teacher, who rebukes the wind and commands the Sea: ‘Peace! Be still!’ (Mark 4.39), Jesus calls on the elements, and the elements obey and are still. Where only moments ago the chaos of gale and flood threatened the lives of those aboard the fishing vessel, now there is a dead calm, as the water and the wind are at peace. This sudden peace is clearly not human work—the disciples drew on all their skill as seafarers to navigate through the gale, and failed—but God’s gift.

And for the disciples it is indeed the ‘peace of God, which is beyond all understanding’: ‘they said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him”,’ our reading questions (4.41). Where human efforts and skill fail, it is by God’s command and through God’s gift of peace that the waves are stilled and the crew is safely brought home to their haven. ‘Who then is this?’, Jesus’ followers ponder, and fail to draw the conclusion that the One who commands the elements to share in God’s peace is also the very One who called them to being at the time of creation, the One who by ‘his word called the stormy sea, which lifts its waves in power’ (Psalm 107.25).

At the end of the story of Jesus and his disciples, his friends know him to be not only the teacher who saved them from drowning at sea, but as the ‘one Mediator between God and humankind, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself a ransom for all’ (1 Timothy 2.5-6). They had seen him as he gave his life on a cross, and saw him again risen from the dead, saw him as a pledge of the life that is forever, for all. They knew him to be the One whom not only the winds and the sea obey, but whom death and life obey. They know him to be the source of their peace now, and the hope of their eternal rest. They know him to be the One who heard their SOS one gust swept night, and has saved their souls forever; know that the One who brought them to the safe haven when they were perishing as their vessel was swamped will also bring them safely to their eternal haven. And they know the cost of that rescue operation, that salvation: the life of the Son of God as a ransom for many, which opened the haven of salvation—heaven itself—to all people who seek God’s friendship.

It was at sea that I first learnt about responding to the mayday signal ‘SOS’. Indeed it was at sea that I first successfully helped to save souls. It was also at sea that I first asked questions about our unsuccessful missions, pondered the reality of pain and loss, brokenness and death. Those questions for me might have remained perpetual questions, had I not been invited by a group of Christians at this university to reflect with them on the central question that Jesus’ disciples asked themselves in today’s second lesson: ‘who then is this Man?’ (Mark 4.41). It was some five years after my service in the Royal National Life-Boat Institution that I was confirmed in my Oxford College Chapel, and confessed my adult faith in Jesus Christ: that I acknowledged that Christ was the One who, ultimately, has saved all souls—even those we did not manage to bring back to shore alive.

As we give thanks for the seafarers who daily face the risks of the great oceans that surround our Island nation, I invite you to ponder the mystery at the heart of this morning’s readings: the mystery that God saves souls; that God calls each one of us by name, and redeems his own; that God has prepared for all who seek him a haven that is forever—the place where ‘all storms will cease, all waves will be still; all will be at rest’ (Psalm 107.29-30). And as we give thanks for the gift of God’s peace, let us also acknowledge the cost of that peace: wrought at the cost of the One who gave his life as a ransom for many; wrought at the cost of the many lives who, following in his service, have given their own lives so that we might enjoy the freedom and peace we know; wrought in countless conflicts through the centuries, just as it has been, and is being wrought in countless acts of selfless giving, kindness and sacrifice each day.

And now ‘may God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ grant us all peace, love and faith. May his grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus, in life imperishable. Amen’. (Ephesians 6.25).

Photography: Royal National Life Boat Institution UK. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Cathedrals: Places that make known God’s call

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Sunday after the Ascension, 17 May 2015, at the National Cathedral, Washington DC:

National Cathedral

I am delighted to be with you this morning, and I thank Dean Gary for his kind invitation to come and visit with you, and preach here this morning. Although I have come a long way today, I am not a complete stranger to your neighbourhood: some eighteen years ago, I had the privilege of living in Cathedral Heights. Then, I was a seminarian from the Church of England working at an inner-city parish in your diocese, and I daily undertook the audacious (some might say foolhardy) commute by bike from my temporary home near your beautiful Cathedral down to the centre of town via Wisconsin Avenue and Dumbarton Oaks. The way to work was exhilarating and fast; the way home was quite literally an uphill struggle.

Since my time in this city, discerning God’s call for my life and preparing for ordained ministry, I have served churches in the West of London and the heart of Cambridge in England as a parish priest, and worked as the Senior Chaplain and Senior Lecturer in Theology at Trinity College in the University of Melbourne. And so it is that a former neighbour from Cathedral Heights today brings you greetings from St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, which I am privileged to lead as Dean. St Paul’s is the Seat of the Anglican Primate of Australia, and I bring you warm greetings from our Primate, Archbishop Dr Philip Freier, and our four Sunday congregations.

St Paul’s stands at the heart of Australia’s second largest city. Built in warm sandstone, with soaring gothic spires—the second tallest in Anglicanism—it is an icon of God’s call to all people to encounter and know him. Our Cathedral is a church that not only the parishes, agencies, schools and colleges of our province call their home, but that is the regular place of worship for people from more than 25 nations; people whose backgrounds and stories, languages and cultures, could not be more diverse.

At St Paul’s we delight in the Good News that God calls people into his friendship and service regardless of their background or past. And we are profoundly aware that as Cathedrals, you and we are uniquely placed to invite others to come to know and serve God through our own witness and ministry.

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God’s call to all people to testify to his love stands at the heart of this morning’s readings. Our first lesson, from the Acts of the Apostles, shows probably one of the more unexpected ways in which God can call people to serve him (Acts 1.15-26). The story of the call of Matthias to be added to the number of the twelve is extraordinary: a lottery to decide who should take the place of Judas ‘who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus’ (1.16). For me, though, Luke’s story as told in Acts is not only an account of the surprising way in which God has called into his service an apostle of old. I believe that our first lesson says just as much about discerning and responding to God’s call to follow him in our own lives today.

We heard in our first lesson how the apostles and the 120 believers met in Jerusalem to choose a successor to Judas Iscariot. The Apostle Peter instructed the early Christian community of how this important choice would be made: the person to be chosen was someone who had ‘accompanied us … beginning from the Baptism of John until the day when Jesus was taken up from us’ (Acts 1.21-22). The person would be someone who had known Jesus at first hand, someone who might even have been baptised like Jesus with the baptism of John, who heard Jesus’ call, who saw the works of power he undertook, who saw him arrested and raised from the dead, was to take the place of Judas to become ‘a witness with the other apostles to his resurrection’ (Acts 1.22). The pool of potential candidates cannot have been unlimited, and so it should not surprise that the apostles proposed only two names to be a potential fellow-witness to the resurrection: Joseph the Son of Saba—Barsabbas—and Matthias.

The narrow field of candidates reflected the importance of their task. The apostle-elect was to share with the other apostles in the ministry of oversight, which in the first part of the Acts of the Apostles meant first of all the building up of the people of God by ‘daily adding to their number’ (Acts 2.47). Such a ministry not only required a personal experience of the transformational power of resurrection, a personal knowledge that ‘God gave us eternal life, and [that] this life is in his Son’, as our epistle puts it (1 John 5.11). It also required having walked with Jesus and the other disciples, having ‘accompanied us’—the word literally means ‘having broken bread with us’—‘throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us’ (Acts 1.21).

Not only a personal knowledge of Jesus, but knowledge of the other followers of Jesus, the people with whom the Lord himself had broken bread. The person allotted the ministry of apostle was to be a fellow overseer with Peter and the other ten. Both Joseph and Matthias were already well equipped for their task: they knew Jesus, they had heard the ‘words that you gave to me … and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you’, as our Gospel reading tells (John 17.8). They also knew well the eleven apostles, and the 120 new Jerusalem Christians, and they were respected among them.

The call of the new apostle was not that of the early church, but Jesus’ call. Those who serve Jesus were called to be Jesus’ own, are called to be set apart: ‘sanctified in the truth’ and ‘protected in the Father’s name’, as we heard in our Gospel reading (John 17.17). Therefore, the apostles left the choice of their new fellow overseer to the One who had also called them, as Peter’s prayer in our first lesson makes clear: ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these you have chosen’ (Acts 1.25). Peter’s prayer is addressed to the ascended Jesus; in Luke’s Gospel, the word Lord, kyrie, is almost always a reference to Jesus. Peter and the ten regard the calling of the twelfth apostle entirely in terms of their own calling: Jesus himself would call Joseph or Matthias to the office and work of an apostle. The eleven would merely identify and confirm that call. And so it was that lots were drawn, and Matthias was called into his allotted place as an apostle, a fellow overseer, a fellow episkopos or bishop, of the growing group of early Christians.

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Today’s first lesson (Acts 11.15-26) tells us as much about discerning and following God’s call in the early church as it tells us about responding to God’s call to ministry in our own lives. As we think of the calling of Matthias to be an apostle, I would like to offer you four areas for your own further reflection on how God may call people to his service, and on how you and I may be equipped to serve God in our own communities:

  • First of all, I think it is important to realise, as Peter knew so very clearly, that the One who calls is not the Church, nor the council of overseers or bishops, nor the congregation of the faithful, but Jesus Christ. Peter is confident that it is Jesus who calls people into his service, and that the Church, and the overseers or bishops, merely identify and confirm that calling. The call is Christ’s, but the people who identify this call are members of the community of believers and those who are given gifts of leadership and authority in that community.
  • Secondly, it is important to remember that those who are being put forward as candidates for apostolic ministry are often people who have already acted upon a sense of calling in their lives. Joseph and Matthias had been with Jesus from the beginning of his public ministry: like Peter and the other apostles, they knew him to be not only their own Lord, but the Lord over life and death, whom they saw ascend to heaven to reign at God’s right hand. They already had much personal experience of what it meant to know and follow Jesus. This does not only mean that they knew Jesus to be Lord and God. It means that they knew his teachings and were able to share them with others with confidence: they were already people ‘who believe in the Son of God and have his testimony in their hearts’, as our epistle reminds us (1 John 5.10).
  • Thirdly, the two candidates, like the other eleven apostles, were people of prayer. Their process of discernment about what it might be that God calls them to do in their lives began and ended with prayer—in fact ‘they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer’, we read in the first chapter of the Book of Acts (Acts 1.14). Not only the process of discernment, but their entire lives were shaped by this habit of prayer. The prayer in which the eleven apostles shared, and of which the calling of Matthias in today’s first lesson is an example, was corporate prayer: the apostles prayed together with the family of Jesus, shared in prayer with ‘Mary, the mother of Jesus and his brothers’ (Acts 1.14). Together they forged a community, a family, of believers who centred their lives around learning to pray together.
  • Finally, the candidates were fully equipped and ready to take up their allotted task. Joseph and Matthias did not know where they would be sent—the Greek word apostolos means someone who is being sent—nor did the know with whom they would minister in future. Yet they chose to accept the call to the apostolate as if Christ himself had spoken to them through the casting of lots. Matthias to join the eleven and to take the place of Judas as an overseer, Joseph to continue his ministry as a respected member of the Jerusalem community of believers who knew and was able to testify personally to the power of resurrection.

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I said at the beginning that I believe that as Cathedral churches at the heart of our nations, our Cathedrals are uniquely placed to make known God’s call to fellowship and ministry to others. We are places where our bishops gather with their people to pray and confirm, through the laying on of hands, the calling of the Christ and his Church. We are natural places of invitation, where people from all kinds of backgrounds—tourists who visit our wonderful buildings, committed members and those who perhaps do not yet fully know what it is that they are searching for—can come together to worship, and thus learn more about God’s call to us and all people. We are places of prayer, whose common life is shaped by the rhythm of our daily life of communal prayer. And we are places from which those chosen for ministry are sent or are enabled to enter into their own apostolic ministry in the places in which they are to serve. As Cathedral churches we are placed like few others to equip and confirm others for ministry.

I give thanks for the gift of God’s call in the life of our church, and the role we can play, as Cathedrals, in bringing others to God so that they may receive his gifts of fellowship. As the season of Easter comes to a close, and we look forward to the season of Pentecost, with its promise of the gifts of the Spirit to equip and build the body of Christ for its ministry, I should like to encourage you to ponder what it is that God is calling you to do in your lives of worship and witness—both in your own lives, in the life of this Cathedral, and in the lives of the communities of which you are a part.

Again, our first reading provides us with a number of important pointers:

  • Remember that the call to serve God is Christ’s. The ministry of Joseph Bar Sabbas would have been as important as that of the apostle Matthias. Not all people are called to an ordained office, yet all are called to exercise the ministry of making known the message of Jesus Christ. Rejoice in that calling.
  • Remember that it is important to know Jesus and know about Jesus. Joseph and Matthias knew Jesus first hand. We, too, can know Jesus through the words that are recorded about him in the Scriptures, as well as through our personal prayers. Use the opportunities given to you at the National Cathedral, your local church, or the community from which you are visiting today, to further your own understanding of Jesus; to learn more about his words and works recorded in Scripture, and about the ways in which we can deepen our understanding of Jesus in worship and spirituality.
  • Remember that it is important to pray as a community. The decision to appoint Matthias was clearly underpinned by communal prayer. It is important to pray as a community—and the first Chapter of Acts makes clear how a community can be shaped by regular common worship and the breaking of bread, and so be equipped to grow. Come and join the daily prayers at the National Cathedral, or share in weekday prayer at your home churches as often as you are able to do so. It is in this way that we belong to, and are shaped into, communities of prayer.
  • Finally, remember that there is grace in accepting your allotted place. Matthias readily stepped into the role allotted to him, yet he did not know where his response of faith might lead him. It is often easier to assert with the benefit of hindsight that the allotted place was indeed the right place, and I would encourage you to take courage from the example of Matthias whenever you may be presented with your own ‘allotted places’ of ministry; your own allotted calling.

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‘The apostles prayed and said: Lord, you know everyone’s heart.  Show us which one you have chosen. … And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles’ (Acts 1.24-26). As we give thanks that God continues to call women and men into his friendship and service, I pray that the examples of Joseph and Matthias sustain us in our own journeys of faith, and ask that God would bless you and me, as we continue to discern and seek to follow his call.

‘Now to him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, ministers serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen’ (Revelation 1.6).

© Text: Andreas Loewe, 2015, Photography: carmengroup.com

Christ’s two Ascensions: victory over sin and death, heavenly gifts to build up his people

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Thomas’, Fifth Avenue, on the Feast of the Ascension 2015:

Ascension

Thank you Fr Turner, for your kind inivitation to be with you today. It’s a delight to share in your celebration of Ascension Day in this magnificent church at the heart of New York.

I bring you greetings from St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, the seat of the Anglican Primate of Australia. At the east end of St Paul’s Cathedral stands our beautiful Ascension Chapel, with a magnificent golden mosaic, framed in gothic alabaster, depicting the risen Christ departing from his disciples. The ascending Christ stretches his hands out in blessing on his disciples as he is from them.

Our mosaic shows the disciples watching in worship, as Jesus stretches open the starry night sky, depicted in costly lapis lazuli, to enter a golden heaven. Two angels hold up scrolls with words from our first reading: ‘Men of Galilee’, the scrolls record their spoken words, ‘why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’ (Ac. 1.10-11).

Whatever the disciples may have thought as they looked on, it seems that for two angels Jesus’ ascension into heaven was no surprise. Indeed, Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles recounts the story matter of factly, as if these things happened every day. And while they may not exactly have occurred every day, Scripture does tell us about a number of people who ascended to heaven: the prophets Elijah (2 Ki. 1.11-12), Isaiah and Baruch all went up on high (Asc. Isa.), Scripture records.

Ascension to heaven, in Jewish tradition, was a gift of God to those whom he loved. Rather than see death, they would be lifted directly into God’s presence. In the case of Elijah, this took a spectacular form: the prophet was carried on high in a whirlwind, on a chariot of fire, drawn back to God by horses of fire (2 Ki. 1.11-12).

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Jesus’ ascension, which we celebrate today, shares this aspect of the prophets’ ascent to heaven: it is an incredible display of the divine power at work within him. But unlike the ascension of the prophets, who attained glory without first tasting death, Jesus’ ascension certainly was not a way of entering heaven that bypassed death.

During a night-time conversation with Nicodemus recorded in the third chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus had spoken at some length about the idea of ascending to heaven. Then Jesus had told Nicodemus: ‘No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man’ (Jn. 3.13). In order truly to ascend to heaven, he first needed to descend to earth. In order to show to others the glory of God, he first needed to empty himself of that glory, by taking on our mortal life, Jesus explained to his secret disciple.

In our epistle reading from the letter to the Ephesians, St Paul echoes this insight: ‘When it says, “He ascended”, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?’ (Eph 4.9). For Paul, ‘Jesus ascended’, doesn’t just mean ‘Jesus went into heaven’. Before Jesus could ascend to the heavenly glory, he first had to ascend to the cross, Paul assures his readers.

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And you only need to look beyond me to the great stone reredos of this church to see what Paul meant: there, in the central panel, the ascended Jesus blesses us, his worshippers. He stands above the cross, to reinforce, in stone and statue, the point that it was when Jesus was lifted up high on the cross that he did, in fact, make his first ‘ascension’. Jesus ascended to the cross only to descend, to plunge the depths of suffering and death into hell in order to chain the powers that kept humankind captive. Paul explains: ‘he who descended is the same who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things’ (Eph. 4.10).

This, then, is the first difference between Christ’s ascension and that of those who had ascended to God before him: Christ’s ascension is not a passive homecoming to God’s glory, but rather his active engagement with the powers that had kept humankind imprisoned in sin and death. It is, in fact, two ascensions. One that concluded Christ’s work on earth; the ascension witnessed by the disciples at the Mount of Olives celebrated this day. And preceding that, the ascension to the cross, celebrated on Good Friday. An ascension Christ made alone, deserted by almost all his followers, on another hill outside the city: on Calvary.

The second difference between Christ’s ascension and that of the prophets is this: unlike Elijah’s ascension, which really concerned only one man, Christ’s ascension was not a singular event. His two ascensions, both at Calvary and on the Mount of Olives, include and transform all people. Jesus not only takes captivity captive, but he changes those bonds that enslaved us and makes them the bonds that bind us together, so that we might become Christ’s own body.

Christ’s first ascension on Calvary meant that the lives of his followers and friends could be set free from death and sin. His second ascension on the Mount of Olives brought them the promise of the Holy Spirit, who would strengthen and equip those who love him. That, surely, is the true gift of Christ’s ascensions: the gift of people’s lives, redeemed and renewed, bound together in the power of his resurrection to be the body of his resurrection on earth.

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‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive’, Paul cites the Psalms (Eph. 4.8). But equally important is what the Apostle says next: ‘He gave gifts to his people’ (Eph 4.8). And while these gifts are clearly of heavenly origin, they are not bestowed as it were by remote control, by a resurrected and ascended Christ safe in his heavenly home, but by the Jesus who, following his resurrection, walks among his disciples to teach them about the work of resurrection; who calls them back to enter into his service, and encourages them to become a body of believers that reaches out to the ends of the earth. The Jesus who, following his resurrection, bestows precious gifts upon them.

These gifts are various, and given in a multitude of ways. Firstly, the gift of resurrection itself, shown to the women at the empty tomb; the gift of understanding God’s word, given to the disciples fleeing Jerusalem on their way to Emmaus; the gift of peace and his Spirit, given to his frightened friends hiding behind the closed doors of the upper room; the gift of calling, bestowed to a disillusioned band of disciples ready to trade in their apostleship for their old lives at fishermen on Lake Galilee. And, as we anticipate the feast of Pentecost, we look forward also to the gifts of the Spirit: equipping, as Paul says, ‘some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the Saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ’ (Eph. 4.11-12).

There may well be times when we feel like those ‘men of Galilee’, the people who watched Jesus ascend to glory on the Mount of Olives. There are times when we, like them, may feel left behind, full of sorrow and unresolved questions. And it is at these times, I believe, that we need to remind ourselves that the spiritual gifts bestowed on them are still alive today. It is at times like these that we need to understand that the angelic word spoken to them is also addressed to us: ‘why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’ (Ac. 1.10-11).

It is my hope that you and I will come to experience in our lives, and nurture in ourselves, the same gifts that Christ bestowed to his friends in the time between his ascension on the cross and his ascension to the Father. It is my hope that by these gifts we may be equipped to teach to others the work of resurrection. And it is my prayer that we may be shaped into the body of Christ, ‘joined and knit together by every ligament … building itself up in love’ (Eph. 4.16), to make known this message to those around us that even today find themselves ‘captives to captivity’.

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Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

A webcast of the service at which this sermon was preached can be heard here.

© Text: Andreas Loewe, 2015, Photography: The Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, Wikimedia 

Nicodemus and the Cross: Journeying into God’s Light

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 15 March 2015:

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This morning’s gospel reading forms part of an extended night-time conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, ‘a leader of the Jews’ (John 3.1). We are told by St John that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a religious scholar many of whose fellows regarded Jesus’ teaching with suspicion (John 3.1). Later in the story we find out that Nicodemus was, in fact, a member of the Sanhedrin (John 7.50). Only moments after Jesus had overturned the tables of the money-lenders in the Temple, as we heard in last week’s gospel reading, this leader in the Temple administration secretly seeks out Jesus. Out of sight of his colleagues, in the dark of night, Nicodemus told Jesus that the Temple authorities knew that he was a teacher who had come from God. ‘No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God’, he told Jesus a few verses before our gospel reading commences (John 3.2).

Jesus answered Nicodemus that his authority and his works indeed come from God, and added that Nicodemus would not ever fully comprehend who Jesus was unless he radically changed his life. ‘No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’, Jesus told a bewildered Nicodemus (John 3.3). And Jesus assured his midnight visitor that ‘no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit’ (John 3.5). No one can enter God’s kingdom without having first been cleansed from sin, without first having received the gift of understanding that the Holy Spirit bestows, Jesus tells.

Even at the end of their conversation, it is clear that Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus told him. Indeed, Nicodemus will be left in the dark until the very end of the story of Jesus. He will not receive any answer to his question of how it is that people are reborn until the very end of John’s gospel. Although Nicodemus listens and seeks to comprehend, he leaves Jesus without being enlightened about the questions that first urged him to seek out Jesus. As Nicodemus leaves the only assurance he receives is that God loves his world so much that he would give his Son so that all might have life, and that to share this life people needed to be reborn.

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‘How can this be’, Nicodemus asked Jesus when they spoke in secret (John 3.9). And Jesus is astounded how a teacher of Israel cannot understand what to him is clear: that God expresses his love for his world by letting his Son Jesus be crucified ‘in order that the world may be saved through him’ (John 3.17). We, who have the benefit of knowing the story of Jesus from the perspective of the cross, can understand how the world can be ‘reborn from above through water and Spirit’ (John 3.5): how Jesus sent out his Spirit to renew the face of the earth in breathing his last on the cross. How Jesus renewed the world by the water flowing from his side, when soldiers pierced his lifeless body.

But Nicodemus visits in darkness and leaves in darkness, and is given no clue beyond Jesus’ challenge that ‘all who do evil hate the light, and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed’ (John 3.20). And that pointed comment might have the end of Nicodemus’ story. He could just have returned to take his place at the Temple council, none the wiser, none the braver. He might have made the connection between the bronze serpent Moses lifted up to ward off the poisonous snakes that attacked and killed the people of Israel on their journey to the Promised Land (Numbers 21.1-9) and Jesus. He might have never thought that Jesus also would be lifted up as a sign of God’s work against the things that kill, be lifted up on a cross against death itself. He might have never grasped that, in being lifted up to be a remedy against death and a sign of God’s great love for humankind, Jesus would die himself. Nicodemus might never have understood what he heard in their night-time discussion: that Jesus was talking about his own sacrifice.

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But that is not how the story of Nicodemus ended. At the end of John’s gospel story we encounter a transformed man. Because having witnessed Jesus’ death, all made sense to Nicodemus. In the darkness of Golgotha, as the sun hid its face, Nicodemus comprehended, and he saw for himself the full extent of God’s love. Nicodemus saw the Son of Man lifted up, saw him give up his spirit as he died, saw him breathe the spirit of rebirth. He saw the water flow from Jesus’ side, and suddenly knew what it meant ‘to be born from above’ (John 3.3). In the darkness of midday, when the sky went black that first Good Friday, Nicodemus witnessed all these events. And by witnessing, he made sense of his earlier conversation.

As he saw Jesus suspended on a cross in the dark of midday, Nicodemus was no longer uncomprehending of what it was that Jesus meant when they first met in the dark of midnight. More importantly, he knew that the dark was not for him, and he decided to answer Jesus’ challenge. There, at the foot of the cross, he was no longer afraid of the repercussions. Nicodemus resolved to come to the light, to ‘do what is true’, and to choose for himself that from now on his ‘deeds would be clearly seen in God’ (John 3.21).

At next light, Nicodemus decided to throw his reputation as a Pharisee, leaders of the Jews and teacher of Israel to the wind and go straight to the highest authorities in the land to ensure that Jesus was given a proper burial. Accompanied by another ‘secret disciple’, Joseph of Arimathea, he went to the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate to ask for the body of the crucified Jesus to be taken down from the cross (John 19.39). It was his remembrance of his conversation about how Jesus would overcome our deaths by his own death, and his resolution to leave behind the secrecy of his own discipleship that compelled Nicodemus to go into the headquarters of the Roman Prefect to ask that Jesus be released for burial.

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Choosing to ‘come to the light so that his deeds may be clearly seen’ for Nicodemus meant a radical break with his past (John 3.21). For Nicodemus to step into the broad daylight and bury Jesus meant being excluded from the celebrations of the most sacred holiday of his people, the Passover. It was late on the eve of the Passover when Jesus died. In order to ask for the body of Jesus, Nicodemus would have faced double defilement: the defilement of entering the gentile Prefect’s headquarters, and the defilement of handling the dead body of Jesus. Nicodemus’ hands were literally tainted—twice: in contact with his overlords, and by the lifeless body he took down from the cross, cleaned, embalmed and buried that night. There was no time to seek ritual cleaning. For that year’s Passover Nicodemus would excluded, would be among the unclean, unable to celebrate the liberation of his people with his own.

Instead, Nicodemus found another liberation altogether. When they first met, Jesus had told Nicodemus that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’ (John 3.16). The death of Jesus might not have immediately indicated the liberation, the beginning of new eternal life, to his secret disciple. It did, however, confirm his loyalty to Jesus. Nicodemus was no longer a secret follower: in order to lay Jesus to rest, the ‘teacher of Israel’ excommunicated himself by making himself unclean. Nicodemus deliberately alienated himself from his community of faith in order to pay a last act of love to the one whom he admired and first sought out under the cover of night.

In his decision to make his discipleship of Jesus public Nicodemus broke with his own community of faith. He did so without knowing how Jesus’ words that ‘God send his Son into the world … so that world may be saved through him’, would be fulfilled (John 3.17). Nicodemus was not to know that Jesus’ death was more than an execution. Yes, his night-time conversation about how Jesus had to be lifted up on a cross, so that all might have life, was at the forefront of his thinking. But at the time of Jesus’ burial, I suspect that there was a lot of confusion about what Jesus had said, and what he might have meant by his words. After all, Jesus was dead, not risen, and it may not have been very clear to Nicodemus how the man he had just embalmed intended to bring eternal life, eternal salvation, to all.

Nicodemus did not know that the body he was preparing for its final rest would not be contained by Joseph of Arimathea’s new tomb for long. That realisation would only become clear with hindsight, from the vantage-point of the resurrection. Nevertheless he decided to put an end to his secret devotion, and publicly declare his loyalty to Jesus. People still risk alienation because of their friendship for, and loyalty to, Jesus. While here in Australia that sense of alienation might be expressed by the indifference or disbelief of others for the beliefs we hold, in other parts of the world, and particularly in the lands of the Middle East, the price Christians pay for their loyalty to Jesus may be just as costly as that paid by the ‘secret’ disciple who, at the foot of the cross, decided that he would no longer hide his faith, but openly confess his loyalty to Jesus; risking exclusion and repercussions in order to remain faithful to the One he loved.

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At the foot of the cross, Nicodemus became an example of faithful discipleship, leaving behind old certainties and stepping into an uncertain future. As we journey to the cross together this Lent, I encourage you to reflect with me on the cost of our own discipleship, and to pray for all those who still face exclusion and persecution for their faith. And as we give thanks for Nicodemus’ witness, I encourage you to reflect with me on our own witness to God’s love in this city diocese and Cathedral community, and to pray that we may be good ambassadors of the good news that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’ (John 3.16).

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand o the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen. (Jude 1.24-25)

Casting wide the net: fishermen become fishers of people

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at the Patronal Festival of St Andrew’s Brighton, on 23 November 2014:

I bring you warm greetings from the congregations of your home church at the heart of our city and diocese, St Paul’s Cathedral. I am delighted to be with you this morning, and to reflect with you on the calling of your Patron Saint and my Name Saint, St Andrew.

This morning’s Gospel reading is a story of invitation: a story in which strangers become followers, and fishermen fishers of men.

Our story really begins in the Jordan valley, the place of Jesus’ own response to John’s call to be baptised and be set apart for his ministry as the One who calls others to God (Matthew 4.13-17). By the time Jesus had returned from the wilderness temptations of Satan (Matthew 4.1-11, 12), John had already been arrested by Herod. Jesus also left the Jordan valley, perhaps to avoid arrest himself. He withdrew to Galilee, and made his home in Capernaum on the lakeside (Matthew 4.12). For the next few chapters of Matthew’s Gospel Capernaum and the Lake were to become the centre of Jesus’ activity.

Capernaum lay in the land of two ancient tribes, we are reminded by the Gospel writers, ‘in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali’ (Matthew 4.13), a region that played a central part in the prophetic words of old. Isaiah, for instance, speaks of how a ‘great light’ would arise for those living in the region of the ‘Way of the Sea’, the Via Maris, an ancient route traversing Judea and Galilee, much used by traders on their way from Egypt to present-day Syria and Lebanon (Isaiah 9.1). The Galileans had been ‘brought into contempt’, we read in Isaiah; in fact, their cities had been occupied and their people had been carried into exile (2 Kings 15.29). The ‘great darkness’ that had fallen on the nations of Zebulun and Naphtali was to be lifted by the arrival of a ‘great light’ among them (Isaiah 9.2). Just as foreign powers once had plundered their homeland, so they would again rejoice, ‘as people exult when dividing plunder’ (Isaiah 9.3). For St Matthew there is no doubt that the great light that has dawned for those in the ‘region and shadow of death’ is none other than Jesus Christ.

This land, then (once called with derision ‘the Galilee of the Gentiles’ since it was seen to be on the fringe of the Jewish covenant), was to become the home for the work of the Kingdom of God. It was from here that God’s light would begin to shine forth, first illuminating the Jews and then all other nations (Luke 2.32). It was on a mountain on the lakeside that Jesus made known the light of God’s Kingdom to the people of Galilee and, following his resurrection to new life, from another mountain nearby that he commissioned them to spread that light to the whole world (Matthew 28.7). By proclaiming his message of light in the midst of darkness, the derided ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ became the place from where the good news was shared with all peoples, the place that saw the fulfilment of the prophecy of great light in the midst of darkness for all peoples Isaiah spoke about.

In this land Jesus first began to preach proclaiming, in the words of John the Baptist, ‘repent, the Kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matthew 4.17). ‘The reign of God has come among you and is close at hand’, he told his listeners. This was the first time that Jesus spoke of God’s gracious rule that would bring peace, salvation and redemption to those who longed for it (cf. Isaiah 52.7). Throughout his ministry, in Galilee and beyond, Jesus made known this message of joyful news. To those who followed him, he said that they were given insight ‘to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Matthew 13.11), and explained how they could discern its signs: the Kingdom was like someone who sowed good seed (Matthew 13.3-9), it was like a great mustard tree (13.31f), it was like a net that is thrown into the sea and brings up an incredible catch (13.47-50). For Jesus, this Kingdom had arrived, had already been planted and was now growing before the very eyes of those who turned and followed him.

This idea of ‘turning and following’ Jesus is at the heart of today’s Gospel reading. Indeed, it is so important that the word ‘to follow’ (akolouo) is used three times in this short passage: once Jesus calls people, ‘follow me’ (Matthew 4.19), twice people respond and ‘follow him’ (4.20-21). The image used here is of one in authority calling his followers, people who immediately recognise him, and follow. Here the master seeks out his disciples where, traditionally, apprentices would have sought out their master. Jesus calls four fishermen—two pairs of brothers—and invites them to leave their vocation to catch fish to become ‘fishers of men’, to fish for people (Matthew 4.18).

If we are looking at key words in this passage, then we shouldn’t overlook the small word ‘immediately’ (euthus, Matthew 4.20, 22). Both sets of brothers, Simon and Andrew as well as James and John, follow Jesus’ call immediately. The writer leaves no doubt that Jesus’ call must be answered at once. The decision to follow Jesus is costly: it may well, as in the case of the four, mean giving up our current vocation or leaving behind those we love in order to follow Jesus (cf. Matthew 19.26). All readily gave up their livelihood and two even left behind their father in the boat in order to follow Jesus.

Four Galilean fishermen called to be fishers of men. Simon and Andrew, James and John would not have known the fishing for leisure that we know today. The brothers left behind boats and nets of the first-century equivalent of our fishing fleets, not hooks and fishing tackles. The fishing that went on around the Sea of Galilee was the kind in which a large net was dropped into the depths of the water to catch everything in its path. To become fishers of men, therefore, was the call to seek out everyone, to include everyone they encountered. They were to cast their nets into the darkness of the deep and bring to light all they could find. One of Jesus’ stories about the Kingdom of Heaven explains this:

The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad (Matthew 13.47f).

Everyone is called to the Kingdom, everyone called to be brought out of the darkness that surrounds them to the great light that has arisen among them. The sorting-out of those called to enter this Kingdom­­­—those called to dwell in this light forever—is left not to those who call—those who ‘fish for men’—but to others. Once the fishers have brought up—brought to light—their catch from the deep, others are called to sort that catch. Putting the good fish into baskets, and returning the bad to the sea. As Jesus explains to his followers:

So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous (Matthew 13.48).

To follow Jesus, then, means to enter into this vocation: like Andrew your patron and the first Apostles we, too, are called to ‘fish for people’. Yet it is not up to us to decide whether those we bring to Jesus, those who choose to accept Jesus’ call to enter into the radiance of his light are ‘in’ or ‘out’. That is left for others to decide. It isn’t for us to rank those who do follow on the basis of their sacrifice, either. Whether they are people who have left behind their vocations, their livelihood and families to follow, or whether they are ‘simply’ those who got caught up in the wake of the net should not matter to us. All that we are called to do is to join in the catching, to cast the net wide, and to bring many to the light of God.

This, then, is a true story of revelation and response: Jesus appeared among the four Galileans like the great light that had been promised to their people in a time of great darkness and persecution. The four responded to the call to come to this light and brought many more with them. Indeed, only a few verses on, we hear how great crowds of Jews and Gentiles followed Jesus, ‘coming from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and Transjordan’ (Matthew 4.25). And today, we too are called to share that light, are called to be numbered among the many who responded to Christ’s call. Whether they be strangers from the East at a birth in a humble manger, whether they be Jewish fishermen on the Lake at the crossroads between Jewish and Gentile lands, whether they be foreigners carrying the cross of a condemned criminal, or Jewish leaders preparing a broken body for the tomb; regardless of whether they be Jews or Gentiles, strangers or folk who feel they belong—they are called by Christ.

And today, you and I, are invited, like them, to get caught up in the net of grace, and to tell others of this good news, too.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Remembrance: the God who takes up our brokenness and makes all things whole

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at Holy Trinity, Hampton Park, on Remembrance Sunday 2014:

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This morning’s readings (Ezekiel 37.1-14 and Matthew 26.17-19, 26-30) assure us that God remembers each one of his own who has died; that he will bring together, at the end of all ages, all those who have lost their lives; and that it is by our corporate remembrance, our active recalling of those whose lives have been lost, that we can share in that assurance of lives restored.

Our word ‘to remember’ is the direct English equivalent of the Latin verb ‘re-memorari’. The second part of that word—‘memorari’—comes from the noun ‘memoria’, from which we derive our word ‘memory’. The Latin prefix ‘re-’ often means ‘again’ or ‘back’. To remember a person or an event, therefore, means to have an intensive awareness of someone or something in one’s mind: to be intensely mindful of someone.

That is one, and the most conventional, way of looking at the word. Now imagine the same word with a hyphen. If you add a hyphen between ‘re-’ and ‘member’, the word suddenly changes its meaning altogether. To ‘re-member’ may look very much like our first word, but has very different roots. Yes, it shares the Latin prefix ‘re-’—‘again’ or ‘back’—but its second part comes from the Latin ‘membrum’—‘limb’ or, somewhat archaically, a ‘member’.

To ‘re-member’, then, means to bring together, reassemble, members and limbs. It means to bring to life someone or something that was broken and therefore is the direct opposite of the word to ‘dis-member’. This morning’s readings invite us to put our communal remembrance of the conflicts, wars and acts of terror that have brought us together this morning, in the context of both of these words.

Our first reading, a momentous vision from the prophecy of Ezekiel, illustrates well the second—the hyphenated—meaning of the word re-member. The prophet finds himself in a vast plain, surrounded by dismembered, dried out bones; a valley full of dead bones without any hope of life. At first he is not told where these bones come from, God’s hand simply leads him around the bones. Ezekiel may be standing in the middle of a mass grave, or a place where generations of the dead have been placed; at this point the prophecy doesn’t tell us more about their provenance. All we know is that there ‘are very many bones lying in the valley, and they were very dry’ (Ezek. 37.2).

And God charges Ezekiel to prophesy to these very many, very dead bones. God commands him to proclaim his word to them. And as Ezekiel makes known God’s word to the assembly of dried up dismembered bones, we hear him speak words of resurrection: ‘Thus says the Lord God to these bones’, Ezekiel proclaims to the valley of dry bones, ‘I will cause breath to enter in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord’ (Ezek. 37.5). Immediately, at the very time that Ezekiel proclaims God’s message of resurrection to the dispersed bones, they are re-membered: ‘the bones came together, bone to its bone’ (Ezek. 37.7). As the prophet speaks the words of resurrection, the disconnected bones become assembled, limb to limb, member to member, in this divine act of re-membering. And, as he continues to prophecy the words that God gives him, suddenly ‘sinews were on them, … flesh had come upon them; and skin had covered them’ (Ezek. 37.8). A valley of bones, re-membered, re-clothed with sinews and skins standing before Ezekiel, ‘but there was no breath in them yet’ (Ezek. 37.8).

And now Ezekiel is commanded to call on the breath, to fill the empty bodies with life. He calls on God’s spirit, speaks into the four corners of the earth—wherever their breath had been scattered—to fill the bodies, blows on them as one would kindle a fire, in-spires the empty bodies ‘that they may live again’ (Ezek. 37.9). And as God’s spirit filled them, the bodies stand and live, and God reveals to the prophet that the vast multitude before him is the whole house of Israel, a people once dispersed and dead, now re-membered and resurrected.

Yet although they stand, looking to all intents like real people—with fresh skins on their dead bones and the breath of life within their bodies—deep down they remain people who remain disconnected from one another and from God, we read. They tell the prophet: ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are lost completely’ (Ezek. 37.12). And the word of God spoken by the prophet addresses them in their hopelessness, prophecies how God will bring them back, not only from their graves, but restore them to the heavenly kingdom that he had promised; how God will put his spirit within them, so that they may live. And all so that they may know that the Lord alone is, indeed, their God.

God will bring life, even in the midst of death, the prophet tells the vast army of the people of Israel. God has re-membered them, and will not forget them either. Another Dean of another St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne of London’s St Paul’s, reflected on this hope like this in one of his sermons:

God knows in what part of the world every grain of every man’s dust lies … and he whispers, he hisses, he beckons for the bodies of his saints and, in the twinkling of an eye, that body that was scattered over all the elements, is sat down at[ the right hand of God, in a glorious resurrection (Sermon LXXXI, 19 November 1627).

God re-members, brings together, his broken people, by remembering, recalling each one that has been lost to death.

Just as our first reading proclaims God’s mighty works of re-membering, of putting together again those who were broken, wherever they may rest, so our second reading shows us how we, too, can engage in the work of remembrance. For at the heart of our gospel reading from St Matthew stand words that form the centre of our own worshipping life, as we gather round Christ’s table: ‘This is given for you; do this in remembrance of me’ (Mt. 26.26, Lk. 22.19). Do this, so that you may remember me, Christ says, and points to the broken bread that symbolises his body, the body that is about to be broken on the cross.

And so our daily sharing in the broken bread becomes not only the ultimate act of remembrance—a time when we recall intently the work of our salvation and the fulfilment of God’s promise that all may one day come to share in the promised heavenly kingdom—but also is meant to be a share in his work of re-membrance, of bringing together the members of the body of Christ, however dispersed, however disconnected from one another and from God they may feel, however broken they may be. At Christ’s table, as we come to remember him, we are all re-membered, are brought together, are given a share in God’s mighty work of deliverance in the death and resurrection of Christ. At Christ’s table, we make present this deliverance in our midst, and we do so by our act of remembering, as each individual member of his body shares in the bread and wine and we, ‘though we are a many, become one body, because we all share in the one bread’ (1 Cor 10.17).

We stand at Christ’s table not merely as a living assembly of humans—like the multitude of dried bones, now covered in flesh and given breath though still without hope, that once filled the valley of Ezekiel’s vision—but as living members, as limbs of Christ’s own body, connected to him, sharing in the pains he feels in the hope that we, too, might come to share the risen life he brings. As we remember him breaking the bread, the sign of his body, at table with his disciples, we also re-member—bring together—his broken body, become members one of another and of Christ; all by doing this ‘in remembrance of him’ (Mt. 26.26, Lk. 22.19).

On this Remembrance Sunday, as we remember the centenary of the Great War and the enormity of its cost, I invite you to share in the remembrance that both recalls in our minds and brings together again what has been broken by illness, suffering, war or hatred. I invite you to remember—to recall—how by letting his own body be broken on a cross, Christ has taken up in himself all brokenness in order to make it whole. And as you receive the bread and the wine of Holy Communion I invite you to re-member—to build up and become—his body on earth: be re-connected with one another and with Christ himself, as members of his body, so that together we may make known the work of his healing, wholeness and redemption in an age still marred by conflict and war.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.